Mateo gasped, a scream just under the surface of his breath. His body jerked awake in that way that feels like falling. Heart pounding, he gripped the sheets as his surroundings blurred in and out. The nightmare, again, maybe not a dream but a dark memory. Sometimes those memories were sharper than the present ones.
Confusion washed over him. Where was he? Now and in the dream. He wasn’t a hundred percent sure where he was but there was something comfortable and familiar with this plain room. Most importantly, he felt safe, yes, this was a safe spot.
In the dream he was not. There was a burning sun beating down on him then a crack of a horse whip. He squawked, the noise sounding small and childlike, then ran. He dared not to look back. The desert brush seemed to claw at him, he crawled into a dry water culvert where he hid in the dark. Movements around him, scratches and scuffles of rodents made his stomach clutch and heart race. The memory shot Mateo into the present where he heard a whirl of machines, a fan perhaps. Muffled voices were outside his room.
The door opened and a woman silently moved to the side of his bed. It wasn’t his woman but a familiar woman. He searched the face of this person and tried to place her but couldn’t. She smiled at him and asked if he needed anything as she adjusted his blankets then placed a hand on his while she looked him over.
“Go back to sleep,” she said in hushed tones, “it was just a dream.” He thought he nodded and tried to say thank you but wasn’t sure if either actually happened before the young woman disappeared.
He took a deep breath. “You’re home, safe and sound,” he mumbled to himself, but that wasn’t quite right either.
The old man’s focus swam across the screen, scanning behind the iPhone being held up to his face. His voice sounded small and confused.
“I’m right here,” she answered. Tears welled in her eyes as she watched the confusion encompass his face. “Look at the phone, Mateo. I’m on the screen. Can you see me?” Elena could see by the angle of the camera the nursing home staff was doing her best.
“Elena?” He lifted his hand to push the phone away from his face, eyes searching for her beyond the obstruction. The camera direction flipped and the attentive, clear-eyed nursing home employee’s masked face took up the screen.
“He sure does miss you,” she said.
“I miss him too,” Elena answered as she regained control of her emotions.
“Did the doctor reach you?” Elena felt the involuntary tears return with a sting. She nodded, the nurse continued. “He’s sayin’ Matty only has a few days left but I think he’s got a solid week in him, maybe more. He’s strong.”
Elena laughed at the comment which gave way to the tears she was trying to suppress. One from each eye raced down her cheeks. “That he is,” she managed to croak out. “Please let me come and see him, please.”
The attendant shook her head sadly, “It’s not up to me, it’s the rules. This damned virus.” Elena nodded and let the waterworks flow.
“You go home every night, right? And you come back each morning. Why can’t I?” Elena could hear the desperation in her voice. “Besides, he’s dying, it’s not like Covid is going to kill him.”
“It’s the other residents we’ve got to be worried about. If one of them gets infected, it could spread through here like a wildfire and kill half the patients. We just can’t chance it.”
“It’s not fair,” Elena knew she sounded like a spoiled child but these lock down rules were doing more harm than good.
“You got that right,” the friendly face replied. Before the pandemic, every night faithfully, Elena showed up at the nursing home at 445pm sharp and assisted Mateo out of bed, down the hall to the large eating area with a dozen or so more patients. They talked, ate and engaged for a couple hours and even though his mind was slipping, and his body failing, she knew he enjoyed it and looked forward to it like she did.
The Corona virus changed everything. By government orders, she was no longer allowed in the building, the residence no longer gathered for comrade and gossip. Mateo seemed to wilt before her eyes. Elena’s visitation were now only FaceTime video calls.
“What if you isolate him, could that be a possibility? What if he was only exposed to me and vice versa?” she plead to the bright eyed staff. Elena could see the nurse was considering the possibility as her eyes no longer met hers but looked past the phone’s camera. She nodded her head as if she had just had a silent conversation with someone Elena couldn’t see.
“Oh E, let me get back with you. There is a room we may be able to use but you’ve got to understand, you only get to come in once.” Their eyes met and Elena could see the woman’s expression had completely changed, she was all business now. “What I’m saying is there is no in and out. If you leave, that goodbye is your last goodbye. This is for everyone’s protection, including Matty’s and yours. You’ll be in his room with him 24/7 until he passes or you get bored. Could be a week, could be a month. There’s no sayin’”
Elena’s heart soared. She would spend her husband’s last days with him, COVID be damned.
It didn’t take long for Elena to make the necessary arrangements for her dogs to be cared for and her mail to be picked up. On her way to leave the key with the neighbor she stopped at the clump of rural mailboxes. There was a thick padded envelope for Mateo the script was unfamiliar, choppy cursive handwriting. She didn’t recognize the return address either. Carefully she opened the package and took out a stack of letters bundled with a large rubber band. A note was written on a single sheet of pale pink paper in the same writing from the envelope.
Found these in a box of Abuela’s treasures. I think they’re yours.
All my best,
There was phone number written under the shaky signature. Ana? Mateo’s sister Ana? It had to be, but what were all these letters about? She returned them to the padded envelope and slid them into the side pocket of her overnight bag.
The nice attendant had met Elena at the side door. The woman seemed nervous as a teenager sneaking out the window in the middle of the night.
“Please don’t tell a livin’ soul you’re here,” the woman said without meeting Elena’s eye, “we could all lose our jobs over this, this COVID snizzle is nothing to sneeze at, pun intended.” Elena realized the young woman was chattering from apprehension they were after all breaking all the rules. “I heard about a nursing home in Oklahoma City that the virus took out half their patience and a quarter of their staff. We can’t have that here.”
“Of course,” Elena said to the woman’s back, “I’m eternally grateful for you for doing this.”
“Matty deserves you bein’ here in his last days, no one needs to die alone, you know? And we’re just not staffed enough now to be with everyone all the time.”
“Totally understand,” Elena replied.
They walked past what looked like administration offices to a room on the end. It was not a normal patient room and Elena realized this was someone’s office turned into a makeshift bedroom for her and Mateo’s last days together. He lay asleep in the hospice portable bed they had moved in and she noticed a little camping cot had been set up by the large desk. There was two folded blankets, one red, one green, stacked neatly on one end.
“Bathroom?” Elena asked.
“Oh yes,” the attendant opened a door that Elena had thought was a closet, “This is the administrators office and has its own private facility, fancy right? We have never actually had an administrator on site. Their office is in Albuquerque and now with the pandemic, there is no telling when or if they’ll make an appearance here so it’s all yours.”
“Thank you,” Elena was overcome with emotion. She hadn’t seen Mateo in the flesh for almost six months. Only a half of a year and he had plummeted into dementia hell with no chance of coming back.
“I’m not going to come in anymore, this is it, we can chat on the phone or text me.” The attendant made a hasty exit, “Lordy it’ll be a miracle if I don’t get canned for this.” She said behind her pink daisy mask.
Once the door closed Elena took her own mask off and moved to her husband's side. She reached out and touched the top of his head, “Looks like you need a haircut,” she said as she let her fingers run through his thick hair. It was mostly grey but still thick as could be for a man in his mid-seventies. Mateo had always taken such good care of himself it didn’t seem quite fair that his body was still mostly fit, his hair was still mostly intact but his mind, his mind was nearly gone. She leaned in and kissed his forehead. As she went to stand, his hand squeezed hers and his eyes opened.
“Mi amor,” he said, his mouth twitched and turned up into a weak smile.
“It’s good to see you too,” she said.
Emotion welling in her chest, Elena turned and picked her bags from the floor and put them on the desk. She started unpacking the few items she brought.
“When did you get that?” Mateo asked.
“This bag? I don’t really remember but I’ve had it forever. Maybe Joey got it for me for Mother’s day-”
“Not the bag, the desk,” Mateo clarified.
“I’ve never seen it before in my life,” Elena joked.
“It’s a nice desk.”
“I think I’ll use it as a kitchen table,” Elena walked behind it and sat in the chair, “Comfy, very comfy.”
“Why do you need a kitchen table? Don’t we have somewhere else we go to eat?” confusion washed over Mateo’s features, “I just don’t remember.”
“Maybe we’ll switch it up this week, sound good?” Mateo nodded but the confusion remained. “Oh, look what I got in the mail today.” She held up the envelope, “From Ana.”
“Your sister, Ana, remember her?” He nodded but didn’t comment. Elena took the letters from the larger envelope and noticed the post marks on each, some were open, there were a few post cards she set aside in a pile, picturesque scene on top. She arranged envelopes in chronological order, oldest first. Mateo watched her as she picked up the first one and opened it. “I think these letters are from your mom. Does this look like her handwriting?” Elena turned the page around for him to see.
He shrugged, “Don’t know, I don’t remember.”
“Convenient excuse,” she said as she began to read the letter out loud.
It doesn’t appear like you are returning. You must not forget us. We never wanted you to leave. When the park rangers told us they were building a dam they told us we had to leave because soon all our house would be underwater. What he said was true and the lake is called Elephant Butte. It’s a state park now if you can imagine that.
Since you were only ten when you left, there are some things I wanted to tell you just so you don’t always wonder.
You may remember I told you your birthday isn’t right on your birth certificate. I had you at home on June 7, 1932 but by the time the county folks got over to see us and get the paperwork done it was already the 9th and that’s what they put even though I told them you were born two days before.
We lived about thirty miles from here back then in a village called San Marcial. When you were about one we took you to abuela’s in Monticello so I could go to work. It was a little tiny village, all the homes were adobe. . It’s at the bottom of Elephant Butte now! When you was about five a big ole flood tore through the place. Maybe a good place for a lake. But then all three of you moved back to San Marcial.”
“I remember,” Mateo commented.
“The stove in abuela’s house, it was the heater too in the winter.”
“I can imagine.”
“We had oil lamps too, none of this modern day electricity stuff.”
“Next thing you’ll tell me you didn’t have running water.”
“There was a hand pump just outside the back kitchen door. Mama always said, ‘wash up’ before dinner, before bed, when we woke. Wash up, wash up.”
“Don’t suppose you had an indoor bathroom back then.”
Mateo shook his head, “Nope, we sure didn’t, just an outhouse in the back.” Elena watched him as he reminisced, his eyes looked clearer than she had seen them in months. Perhaps because she was here, in person and not on the damned phone camera. “I sure do remember that place. I had to get up before dawn every day and work the fields with Papa, my abeulo.”
“Working the fields? You were five.”
“Oh, age didn’t matter back then, it sure didn’t. I was expected to pull my weight and I did. Once I had the leads for a mule with a plow rigged up and that S.O.B pulled that plow blade right over my foot.”
“Hurt like the dickens, Papa came over and scooped me up cussin’ me the whole time. He took me to the little irrigation creek and put my foot in that ice cold water then he packed it with mud, wrapped his red and white bandana around it and told me to get back to work.”
“Lucky you didn’t lose your foot,” The scar was still present and Elena had heard this story before but was thrilled Mateo remembered it enough to retell it. Mateo’s face softened as he looked past Elena. She thought he looked years younger for a moment and breathed a sigh of thanks for the last thirty years with. They were older when they met, her fifty-five, him sixty. Both divorced, both had grown children and a couple grandkids. They met at a time when her career was at its peak. She felt financially independent, strong, didn’t-need-no-one-to-complete-me but yet she was lonely. They had a slow burning friendship that eventually heated up to romance. Their courtship included long car drives to Mexico where they would get a cheap hotel and explore for a day, then drive back or camping in the Sandia’s or Big Bend. When he had proposed she realized she didn’t need anyone to complete her but compliment her, like opposing colors on a color wheel.
“I remember once abuela told me to go get a rabbit for supper.” Elena came out of her revere and turned her attention to Mateo.
“I don’t remember this story,” she said with a grin, “but I do remember you telling me you were a hellava shot with your wristrocket.”
“It was a slingshot,” he corrected her, “and yes, I sure was. So I went out to get a rabbit like abuela told me to and it was my lucky day , I got two rabbits!”
“Two? How did you manage that?”
“Well, I’ll tell ya, they were white as could be, like maybe they escaped from a magic guy-”
He nodded and bumped forward in his long-ago memories, “Yea, snow white with pink eyes and they didn’t even flinch when they saw me. They was used to people.”
“You poached someone’s pet bunnies?” Elena’s laugh popped out sounding more like cackle. Mateo grinned wide, “I reckon, but we ate them anyway. Abuela gave me bit of the side eye, but she cooked them up none the same.”
Elena enjoyed a good belly laugh and reached for the stack of post cards, “Do you want Deming or Santa Rosa?" she said taking in the scenes of the top two she had pulled from the stack.
“What are you asking me?”
“Never mind,” Elena said and turned the Santa Rosa postcard over and read it, “Mateo, I bring you bad news. Your father has passed. He was buried last Sunday at the church. We wish you were here.” Elena raises her eyes and meets Mateo’s.
“He wasn’t my dad,” Mateo said, “he only gave me his last name.” Elena stayed quiet hoping he would remember more. It was nice when he had these moments of lucidity and she was hoping it would last longer if she didn’t say anything that may break the spell. “I didn’t see him too often but every now and then he’d need me to help with one thing or another. Once he had been on me all day, just ridin’ me over every little thing I did. Then he told me, ‘you are a flower from another seed’ and he spat on the ground near my feet. They had my sister, that was his child. I never was.” Elena nodded. “I slept on the back porch you know.”
“I did not know that,” Elena said, deliberately keeping her tone light.
“Yea, it was screened in so most the bugs stayed out. Abuela and Grandpa slept on the floor near the stove so they were always warm, and my sister slept in the other room. There was only the two rooms, the kitchen and the other room and